World Cup rosters expanded further than ever before in 2022, and yet, with an increasingly deep player pool at his disposal, U.S. men's national team head coach Gregg Berhalter had some thorny decisions to make.
In the process, on Wednesday, he left a host of qualified candidates off the USMNT's 26-man roster — and none more so than one of his two starting goalkeepers from qualifying.
That keeper was Zack Steffen, and while his exclusion won't be the most consequential of the bunch, it was the most surprising of Berhalter's seven biggest roster snubs.
Zack Steffen — G, Middlesbrough
Steffen had been Berhalter's No. 1 keeper for the majority of his tenure as USMNT head coach. He was the No. 1 at the 2019 Gold Cup. He was the No. 1 for the 2021 Nations League finals. He was, it seemed, the No. 1 when healthy during qualifying.
But then a family matter kept him away from USMNT camp in May and June. An injury, and perhaps some shaky club performances, kept him out of camp in September. By then, it had become clear that Matt Turner was the likely starter in Qatar.
But why leave Steffen off the roster entirely?
Berhalter dodged the question on Wednesday. "I think it's more about who we do have, and the comfort level with the guys that are on the roster," he said. "We felt really comfortable with Matt, Ethan [Horvath] and Sean [Johnson]. And that's the direction we decided to go."
He did acknowledge, though, that his call to Steffen had been particularly difficult. The two have worked together since their days in Columbus, with the Crew. "Me and Zack go way back. And Zack's been there for me a bunch of times," Berhalter said. "And to tell him he's not gonna be a part of the World Cup team was heartbreaking for me."
The decision, though, is explainable. Steffen has seemingly regressed as a shot-stopper, and struggled mightily dealing with crosses. Johnson and Horvath are both perfectly capable as backups — and in an ideal world, neither of them will have to play anyway.
Jordan Pefok — F, Union Berlin
The other big name missing is Pefok, and a couple months ago, when the D.C. native was leading Union Berlin to the top of the Bundesliga, his exclusion would have been blasphemous. USMNT fans would have burned Soccer House to the ground. "If we woulda made the decision mid-September, Jordan Pefok probably would've been a lock to be in," Berhalter agreed.
"But since then," he continued, "it's a different story."
Pefok hasn't scored since mid-September. Haji Wright, meanwhile, has scored nine goals in 12 Turkish Super Lig games. "Haji is in great goalscoring form," Berhalter said. "They're both physical strikers. Jordan maybe a little more so, but Haji has pace, he's got the ability to go 1-v-1, he's finishing with his head, both feet. And he's performing really well."
So that was that. "We hope these decisions are right," Berhalter said. "They may not be."
Ricardo Pepi — F, Groningen
Pepi has had a whirlwind 18 months. He burst onto the scene with FC Dallas, chose the USMNT over Mexico, and scored a couple massive World Cup qualifying goals. Then he moved to Augsburg in the German Bundesliga for $20 million ... and didn't score again for almost an entire year.
But now he's back among the goals, as they say, and still only 19. Berhalter clearly likes him. He seemed a good bet for Qatar, especially with any sort of view toward the future.
But Wright has been just as hot, against similar-quality competition, for a more prolonged period of time. Pepi's profile aligns more with that of Josh Sargent, and that's who Berhalter put him up against.
Sargent, Berhalter said, "does a lot of things well. He's also competing against these guys from England and Wales every single week, he'll have familiarity with the opponent, which we think will be valuable. And I think gives a physical presence, with his aerial duels and his competitive nature, that's gonna help this group."
Pepi, on the other hand? "Dutch league is a great league, but it doesn't bring the same physicality that the Premier League brings and the Championship brings," Berhalter said. "And that was something that went into our decision."
Malik Tillman — M, Rangers
Tillman, a 20-year-old on loan at Rangers from Bayern Munich, had impressed Berhalter in June after committing to the USMNT over Germany. His club performances have been inconsistent since, but he seemed to be the ideal end-of-roster roll of the dice, an attacking spark off the bench when others are faltering.
Instead, he, like Pepi, will have to wait for 2026.
Reggie Cannon — D, Boavista
Cannon has been a consistent member of USMNT squads ever since the 2019 Gold Cup. His move to Portugal has been the opposite of smooth, but his experience playing on the right side of a back three for Boavista gave him a unique place on this U.S. roster — or so it seemed.
His exclusion won't be all that consequential, but is definitely surprising. The reasoning, Berhalter indicated, was the prioritization of Shaq Moore's 1-v-1 defending in a group with several dangerous wingers.
Mark McKenzie — D, Genk
There's an argument that, given the USMNT's weakness in the center of defense, Berhalter should have taken a fifth center back — and that fifth almost certainly would have been McKenzie.
A Bronx-born product of the Philadelphia Union academy, McKenzie moved to Genk in Belgium in 2021, and around that time, he seemed to establish himself as a national team regular. He started all four games in May and June of 2021, and one World Cup qualifier each in September and October.
He is error-prone, but he is quick, probably quicker than any other healthy center back in the U.S. pool. With Miles Robinson and Chris Richards both ruled out by injury, McKenzie seemed to be a logical replacement.
But Berhalter (probably correctly) favored Cameron Carter-Vickers, whose profile is similar to McKenzie's; and Tim Ream, whose profile is very much different, but who brings on-ball ability and veteran presence that could be valuable.
James Sands — D/M, Rangers
It remains befuddling that Sands did not get a more thorough look. He can play center back, right back or holding mid, and has played all three for Rangers and/or the USMNT. That versatility seemed to make him a valuable World Cup asset.
But in a way, the expansion from 23-man rosters to 26 might have hurt Sands. Individual versatility became less necessary. Berhalter could take at least one backup at every position, plus a few luxury players, without having to worry about depth in a potential injury crisis.
Still, though, Sands' passing from the back merited at least a September call-up and a chance.